The Poem Believes that #Black Lives Matter
The revolution is being televised and that’s not enough. When Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi tweeted: “#Black Lives Matter,” I tracked too many feeds, read every article and later coordinated some of the organizers for a college visit. Eventually, I started to burn-out; my body ached. I literally forgot to sit and be still (now I have related muscle issues). I did internet-fighting, protest-marching and “died”on the street. But then the oversleeping came and soon writing stopped. I obsessed over what I could do now to address my pain and rage. Poetry neglected to provide that instant gratification to wage public aggression and hurt.
But after crying too hard and using fury as an escape, I broke down and eventually collected (a portion of) myself through reading and writing again. I needed a reminder of our language and the moment so I researched past movements and their artistic companions (e.g. Black Arts Movement, the testimonies of Holocaust survivors). What I noticed with contemporary resistance is the light brush or even the disapproval of art as a formidable kin to social justice.
When I talked with younger social justice organizers (not the original BLM organizers who have amazing June Jordan tattoos) about this theory, there was a varied response. This included vigilant disagreement, general indifference and the most telling, “it’s not enough.” It being poetry, writing or art. I know there are storytellers documenting this current movement because there is Citizen, Bullet Points, Dear White America, BlackPoetsSpeak, Split Rock and more.
So maybe the question I’m really asking is — are the concepts of witness and documentation by poetry withering in this time of social media?
Social media and its accompaniment video have become the new, vigilant witness. Twitter and Facebook have been pivotal in recent coverage of unarmed killings by policemen and citizens. Video phone uploads have now started to expand the definition of blackness to include innocence through the footage of “unarmed” (though victim innocence remains up for debate). The grainy videos and their platforms are richly important, especially for human, black legitimacy.
It’s understood there’s no time for that reflection that is synonymous and dutiful with writing. There is too much input of media without expressive output of the body. The internet taps the knee to react, post and “like” — dopamine stimuli that is immediate. But now there is literature critiquing technology’s influence on communication and intimacy.
In this new age of innovation, where contesting is public and swift— poetry is deafened. The time it takes to value the unfolding of literature or the broken, glorious body, is not valued.
As both Cyrée Jarelle Johnson and B. Cole support, “There are not more important things to think about than words, because the things that you say are the substance of your thoughts, which become the things that you do and the biases you keep close to your chest.”
And maybe this pontification in words is too much of a privilege. There’s no time for emotional processing when another child is moated with caution tape and white flowers. There’s no time for reflection because at a breath another law passes that diminishes black lives.
There’s also the consideration that poetry — at least in regards to social justice — is now highlighted through different platforms or collaborations. Kendrick Lamar’s Alright and Beyonce’s Lemonade have gained a considerable cohort of theorist and activists consuming their work. Young Poet Laureate Warsan Shire’s work is directly embedded in Lemonade. Accordingly, she has gained an even more dedicated readership of activists post Lemonade.
Ghosts haunt from previous social movements: there’s still much at stake with this “new witnessing” through social media. The mental health of activists remains grim. Black children are killing themselves at a higher rate than two decades ago.
I am not declaring poetry as the panacea of all troubles or oppression. As Adrienne Rich pointed out in Legislators of the World, “Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy.”
Even so, one of the outcomes of #BlackLivesMatter, one of the gorgeous principles this current movement is emphasizing is self-care and awareness. I hope the relevance of writing as a witness or even a strategy becomes an embedded value in this movement too.
Rich also emphasized: “But we can also define the ‘aesthetic,’ not as a privileged and sequestered rendering of human suffering, but as news of an awareness, a resistance, which totalizing systems want to quell: art reaching into us for what’s still passionate, still unintimidated, still unquenched.”
Poetic witnessing is also important for the forgotten audience that will study these movements and their artful brethren — curriculum education. These structures and movements need footing a decade from now in history classes AND writing courses. Notably, there’s a historical link among law, philosophy and poetry. We especially need reexamination of policy in a time when the Three-Fifths Compromise is making a gigantic comeback.
There is a debate happening right now, with connotation, language and blackness. The supporters of Zimmerman, Holtzclaw, and Loheman are changing the definitions for majority inclusion. Writing is more essential than ever — poetry at that. Who will rewrite the narratives — turning the behemoth back into the child, turning mischief back into Skittles?
Poetry can be that witness to cry out — writing can sustain even if it’s not for public consumption. In this climate of immediacy reinforced by clicking or doxing, and with anti-blackness plummeting self-worth, I hope there is still regard for the sixth sense of witness.